De Palma considers a film director's untouchable career
Name another mainstream American director whose career has been as divisive, maddening, and inspired as Brian De Palma’s.
Starting in the late ’60s with pop-Godardian exercises in social satire (Greetings, Hi, Mom!), the ever inventive filmmaker went on to deliver dazzlingly modern Hitchcockian thrillers (Sisters, Obsession), major blockbusters (Carrie, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), deathless cult favourites (The Phantom of the Paradise, Scarface), episodes of moral panic (Dressed to Kill, Body Double), further episodes of moral high dudgeon (Casualties of War, Redacted), and a couple of truly spectacular flops (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars). And that’s ignoring major titles like Blow Out and Carlito’s Way, and the overarching fact that every single movie made by De Palma in the past 50 years has been inebriated on its own lurid style and intelligence, including the ones you thought were shit (Snake Eyes).
The man himself offers much illumination as he discusses his filmography in the documentary De Palma, opening Friday (July 1), which, in turn, headlines a massive retrospective at the Vancity Theatre. It shouldn’t be surprising—although in some ways it is—that Brian De Palma is so lucid about his own work, describing, for instance, the studio/creative/money problems that undermined some projects (like Get to Know Your Rabbit), or addressing career-long charges of misogyny.
“I think the movie really shows Brian not only as a filmmaker but as somebody who can communicate all these brilliant ideas perfectly,” says De Palma director (with Noah Baumbach) Jake Paltrow, calling the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “He’s one of the easiest people to listen to. Noah and I have joked that this is the only thing either one of us has made that we can watch over and over again without ever feeling anxiety about it. Every time, you just get sucked in by Brian talking. There’s stuff I still laugh at. The stories he tells, the way he says some things—I was doing the final colour two weeks ago and I was still laughing at the same bloody jokes.”
Indeed, captured in a cozy Manhattan living room, the septuagenarian is amusingly frank, and warmer than you’d expect. Perhaps most engaging are the autobiographical details that then illuminate some of the weirder tics in his filmography. “Kind of like the repeating of a cinematic trauma or something,” as Paltrow puts it, rightly stating that De Palma’s witty mix of low trash, high style, and perverse psychology adds up to more than the provocation it often seems to be. If his pals Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have found a snug rapport with their audience, De Palma has, with some jeopardy, remained truest to himself.
“If you listen to him,” says Paltrow, who was “scarred in the best way possible” by Body Double, his first encounter with De Palma’s work, “he’s telling you it comes out that way because ‘That’s the way I see it. That’s the way I feel it.’ And when you are now applying these tools, like a camera, film, and actors, to these things that are inside a creative person who knows how to use them properly… stuff comes out. And it’s not always nice.”
The Vancity Theatre's De Palma retrospective begins Friday (July 1) with Carrie. For the full schedule of 13 features, go here.